A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

Ten deals with a kind of mobile claustrophobia. We've all experienced it, I think: the feeling that the automobile, which represented freedom when we were teenagers, has become a kind of cage, trapping us into the routines of commuting, carpooling, ferrying the kids to and from soccer practice and play dates, and so on. The feeling becomes more acute when we have a passenger whose conversation we can't escape: There's no place to run. In Abbas Kiarostami's movie, the unnamed driver is an Iranian woman (Mania Akbari), for whom the car at least provides an element of freedom denied to women less mobile, but also traps her into conversations that often reflect upon the status of women -- and not just women in Iran. We don't even see her in the first and longest of the ten segments of the film: The camera is trained on her pre-teen son, Amin (Amin Maher, Akbari's real-life son), as he berates her for divorcing his father and remarrying, and generally for nagging and correcting him. She responds in kind -- each accuses the other of shouting -- and bitterly explains that the reason she lied and said his father used drugs was that it was the only way she would be allowed to divorce him in their repressive society. We then see her behind the wheel in subsequent episodes. She drives her sister on a shopping trip and talks about their respective marriages. She picks up an elderly woman who is on her way to pray at a mosque, and learns that goes to pray three times a day -- a devotion that seems to inspire in the driver her own brief attempt at dealing with her problems in prayer. In the car one day, a friend removes her headscarf -- an act forbidden in public and even in the movies -- to reveal that she has shaved her head, thereby negating the proscription against removing her scarf. One night, she gives a ride to a prostitute who mistook her for a male driver and has a conversation with her about sex. The prostitute insists that what she does is no different from what the driver does when she sleeps with her husband for support and gifts: "You are wholesalers," she says. "We are retailers." Kiarostami filmed the driver and her passengers with digital dashboard cameras, so that we see only the one or the other at any given time. The only external shots are what we can see in the background as she drives -- sometimes including the stares of other drivers or pedestrians -- with one exception: Though we never see the prostitute's face, we watch her get into another car after the driver drops her off. The film, edited down from many hours of footage, was mostly unscripted: Kiarostami provided the concept of each sequence and relied on the actors to improvise. Akbari, who has gone on to write and direct her own films, gives a remarkable performance, as does her son. I have seen only three of Kiarostami's films, including Close-up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997), but it's clear to me that he was one of the major filmmakers of our time.